Get on with your job, and stop telling people what to do!

In organisational life the better you are at your specialism, the more likely it is that you’ll end up not doing it any more. Perhaps you started out as a talented engineer. Do you ever get your hands dirty now? Or you loved getting stuck in to a complicated set of accountancy books – how often do you enjoy a few hours away from the interruptions these days? What’s going on?

As you rise up your organisation, the balance shifts. Starting out, you spent 90% of your time on the shop floor, troubleshooting and juggling along with the rest of the team. Now as a leader you should spend more than half your time managing the organisation itself – working on the business, not in it.

Your job now is to focus on your vision for the business and learn to talk to people in a way that motivates them to buy in. To do this properly, you must train yourself to focus on things which are not as concrete and tangible as books and machinery – and you’ll need a new set of skills to deal with them.

Here’s what to look out for:

  • How motivated are people?
  • Is there gossip and finger-pointing?
  • Are there practices and behaviour that make you uncomfortable?
  • Do others buy into your values and standards?
  • Are you spending most of your time micro-managing others?
  • Have you lost sight of where you are going?
  • Are you mostly running to keep up, never on the front foot?
  • Is there someone capable of leading the business when you leave it?

Tell them what you are trying to achieve, not how you would do it.

Take standards of service and quality in your business. You could design checklists and train everyone to follow them, but this is a lot of work for you and incredibly demotivating for others. People won’t just naturally go along with how you do things: adult human beings don’t work like that. If you are not to have to watch them like a hawk, you need people to understand the essence of what you are trying to achieve so they can find their own way of getting there.

Many call-centre staff, for example, call total strangers, address them by their first name, and ask, “And how are you today?” Maybe you can make this sound natural when calling a person you’ve never spoken to before: I certainly can’t. But somebody wrote the script, and now hundreds of call centre staff follow it slavishly and sound like robots.

You cannot train people in exactly how you provide customer service. Instead, tell them what you are trying to achieve, and ask them how they personally would go about achieving it. In the conversation, you’ll hear if anyone has ideas that don’t fit your values or standards and can explain and clarify these again. If you really listen, you will together come up with a variety of ways of achieving the original outcome that are even better than the method you came up with yourself.

Much more importantly, you’ll have transferred your vision to your team. They will have bought in to achieving the same standard of service, but in their own way – and you won’t need to watch them like a hawk.

Kate Mercer is co-founder of Leaders Lab and author of A Buzz in the Building